Traveling

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Ten Cities, Two Weeks, and I’m Still an Illegal Alien

(15 days ago) My two-week vacation to Vietnam drawing to an end, I take a slow, bumpy car ride past hoards of motorbikes and market stalls of dragon fruit to the capital city of Hanoi, with the taxi driver honking his horn every 20 to 30 seconds the entire 4 hour trip. Luckily it is a pleasant, jaunty trill that sounds like a little song to wake birds up. I need to get back to the big city so I can… (14 days ago) …Spend the entire day at the Pakistani Embassy in Hanoi. This is just as boring as you would imagine, and does not result in the visa back to Pakistan I was hoping for so I have to… (12 days ago) …Head to Saigon for one last day feverish day of shopping, sightseeing, and a relaxing massage and mud wrap to prepare me to… (11 days ago) …Get on a plane to Doha, Qatar and spend a day in the Middle East just killing time before I… (10 days ago) …Board yet another plane for a 14-hour flight to Washington DC since I have no visa for Pakistan and am not in the mood to be detained at the airport in Islamabad upon arrival. In addition to being extremely bummed by this, I also decide to concentrate on the positives, which include me getting to… (9 days ago) …Spend two days in DC seeing fun people, eating great food, and applying for a new visa before I… (7 days ago) …Hop on a plane to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Palm Springs and… (3 days ago) …Drive up to Santa Barbara […] Read More

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Return Flight

So I’m in the U.S. for the next few weeks before I return to Islamabad on June 1. The last month or so of work was insanely busy, which was why I didn’t get it together to post a new blog since celebrating my one-year anniversary with Pakistan. It was definitely time for a break. Living in another country where just about every single thing is different than you’re used to is tiring in a very specific, particular way, and the only method of finding relief is to get away for a little while. I’m most excited about the food. It’s crazy how much I miss things like avocados, blackberries, Fage yogurt, and whole wheat hamburger buns. I went to Trader Joe’s within one hour of landing in DC, mostly just to wander the aisles, mouth agape, before picking up items from the aforementioned list, as well as pumpkin granola, an adorable bag of clementines, and butternut squash. The next few weeks are not so much a “vacation” as they are a time to recover, regroup, and get refreshed for returning to my stint in a foreign country. Exercise is super important, as is a lot of sleep, good eating, and good conversation with a few friends. So I want to apologize right now, in advance, for the fact that I will not be seeing most of you while I’m in the States. There just isn’t time, unless I want to turn my relaxing break into a breakneck social whirlwind, which my energy levels cannot afford at the moment. The trip here was a little bumpy, which refers not only to a very turbulent flight […] Read More

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Weekend Trip

Here is a list of great places to go away for a weekend trip: the Hamptons. Cape Cod. Santa Barbara. Hilton Head. Mackinaw Island. Miami. You will notice that Kabul, Afghanistan is not on that list. But I’m all about experiencing a little adventure, and I already live in Pakistan, so when I got the chance to go to Kabul, I thought…Afghanistan: can’t be that much more dangerous than Pakistan, right? An opportunity came up to go to check out a development project for the weekend, so I took it. I mean, you can handle anything for a year…would it really be so hard to live here? (Also, it is hard for me not to try anything once.) Everything went fine for the first 16 hours or so of my trip: I met a lot of nice people at the compound, I had a nice lamb dinner, I went out for martinis at a bar called “Martinis.” (Not so much with the inventive names here, apparently.) I saw some cool huge Afghan dogs, everyone was paying for things in American dollars, which I hadn’t seen for months, and there were tons of expats running around looking like they were having fun. It made it a little easier to overlook all the barbed wire. After getting to bed not so early, I was awakened at 6:30 in the morning by what sounded like the loudest crack of thunder I have ever heard in my life. I am never great in the morning at the best of times, but this rude awakening in a foreign country and unfamiliar bed (and the smoky smell) left me even more […] Read More

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Chatuchak

I can now report back to all of you that I have found the place in the world where you can buy anything. It’s the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, and it’s amazing. I spent 5 hours there the other day, and I can confidently say I probably saw about 10% of it. Prized items in my haul include: a super cool string of lantern lights for the terrace, candles in the shape of orchids, a woven purse, a huge bag of saffron for about $2, a cute white linen dress for $9, enough Masaman and red curry paste to make a lot of Thai dinners, woven placements, handmade chopsticks with tiny knife and fork decorations on them (utensil irony), and a beautiful painted ceramic tea set. But those things were far from the weirdest or most exotic wares available in Chatuchak. After seeing whole stalls delivered exclusively to the following: silk flowers/snow globes filled with Disney princess dolls/life-size bronze elephant statues, I thought I had seen everything. Then I hit the “puppy” row. That’s right, an entire endless chain of stalls devoted to selling every kind of adorable, wriggling puppy available in Asia. If I thought I could sneak a dog through Pakistan customs, I would have bought one on the spot. (Not that I support keeping little puppies in cages.) Oh, and I also got to drink coconut water out of a coconut they hacked open in front of my eyes, have a surprisingly accurate cartoon of myself done in 6 minutes, and shovel down delicious pad thai from an outdoor makeshift set of “restaurants” in the center of the market that beat […] Read More

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Cheeseburgers in Thailand

So: it’s paradise here. I know, I know–everyone told me a million times before I came: Thailand is the coolest, the best, most awesome vacation ever. But I always go into those kinds of things with a wee bit of skepticism. How can you, oh rapturous Thailand-traveler, guarantee that I will like it as much as you did? The answer is because who wouldn’t like the following: pristine beaches, fresh tropical fruit of every description, perfect sunny 75 degree weather in January, delicious spicy brothy curries and noodle soups, friendly hospitable people, easy motorbikes to rent at all hours, a continuous sweet and gentle breeze, gorgeous rolling waves, hour-long massages on the beach for $9, and all manner of other wonderful things to do at what seem like illegally low prices. I have been wanting to come to Thailand for about 10 years now. That’s about the time that Thai food became my favorite kind of food, and when photos and stories of friends’ backpacking adventures starting trickling in. (Oh shoot, and that terrible Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach.” I wish I didn’t have to count that among my influences.) One of the best things about living in Asia is how close you are to a bunch of countries that are really too far away to visit regularly from the U.S. A direct flight from Islamabad to Bangkok is under 5 hours and is fairly reasonable if you book early. Being here–not worrying about my security, not walking through metal detectors, being able to wear a dress in public, eat food from street shacks without fear of dysentery–feels like a real vacation. Pakistan is a […] Read More

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America

I have just returned from the U.S. after spending three weeks there on my annual R&R. I can’t remember what “R&R” stands for. It’s either Rest and Recuperation, or Rest and Recreation, or Rest and Recovery, or…really I’m just not sure. At any rate, I am entitled to one per year and for sure I am not going to miss a free vacation. If you work directly for the U.S. government abroad (which I don’t), they actually make you take these trips back to the States on a frequent basis so that you don’t lose your patriotism. I would say that living in a place where you’re not allowed to walk around by yourself or wear skirts accomplishes that patriotism all by itself. The thing is though, I missed Islamabad while I was away and am happy to be back in what is starting to feel like home. After three weeks as an ex-pat in America, some observations:

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Paradise, Lost

No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I just took a vacation, had an especially crazy month of work, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to do very simple things like 1) get rid of the ants in my kitchen and 2) figure out why the internet hasn’t worked at my house for 6 weeks. So at present I’m short any substantive update about the grooviness of life in Pakistan over the last month. But I figured at least I could show you a few vacation pics! The idea was radical: take a long weekend off in a place with no cell or functioning internet service, where no one could do work of any kind and everyone could relax. I got away from the city, gulped down a ton of fresh air, visited the highest plains in the world, and read two books front to back. After four months of working weekends, putting in more than the occasional 12-hour day, and living and breathing my job, getting away felt like a long drink of water in the desert: much needed. The only bad news is that I got trapped in the mountains and started to despair of ever returning to civilization. A ticket to Skardu will cost you about 8,000 rupees, (or 14,000 rupees if you’re an American and don’t have one of your Pakistani friends pick up the ticket for you which luckily, I did. Thanks Fahim!!) Either way it’s a steal. The only downside is that the sole air carrier to the mountain towns is PIA, the government-owned airline of Pakistan where service is indifferent and your trip […] Read More

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Unaccompanied Lady

First communication breakdown: hot milk with my breakfast cornflakes. But if that’s the most I have to complain about on my first day in Islamabad, I have to say things are looking pretty good. My 27 hours of travel time took me from Boston to Washington DC to Doha, Qatar and finally to Pakistan, arriving in the middle of the night. I have only good things to say about Qatar Air, which has nice wide seats, Jet Blue-like entertainment options, and sweet little candies and warm hand towels passed around at every possible opportunity. During my trip I watched 3 sitcoms, one episode of “House,” the pilot of “Life on Mars,” an entire movie (Marley & Me), and read an entire book (Eat Pray Love). (Hey, it’s about an American woman in her 30s who travels abroad alone for a year and learns all sorts of important lessons. Seemed too obvious to pass up.) A quick note about this glut of entertainment. I figured it would be my last American TV for awhile, so I really ate it up. The episode of “House” was fantastic–it guest-starred Mira Sorvino as a scientist with a mysterious illness trapped at the South Pole–and I enjoyed the pilot of “Life on Mars” way more than I thought I would. It’s about a cop who gets into a car accident in 2008 and wakes up in 1973, only no one is surprised to see him there. He finds himself in utterly unfamiliar surroundings, and yet he is immediately presented with a complete set of useful things: an apartment, keys, a car, and a job, and everyone seems to know his […] Read More

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Packed

It’s 4:00 am and the movers are coming in four hours. What’s the point of going to bed at this point? It seems especially useless since my bed is covered in piles of clothes and I’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight anyway. My instructions were to stack up everything I want shipped to Pakistan in a specific location and they would do the rest. (Which, I have to say, is the WAY to pack. How fantastic is not having to scrounge up boxes by hanging around the backdoor of the liquor store? I do not miss this.) So this is what a year in Pakistan looks like, in stuff. Plus all the clothes on the bed, of course. In the end I don’t think I did too badly. Fully 30% of what you see is non-perishable food items. I hit it hard at Trader Joe’s, Shaw’s, and Whole Foods to amass the pile of high quality snacks and absolute essentials you see before you. With it, I can make the following feasts for an ex-pat community hungry for non-naan: Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, American, and Crunchy-Hippie-Vegan. (Note, for example, the Bragg’s Amino Acids. If you don’t know what that is, it just means you’re not crunchy hippie or vegan). I have mac & cheese to get me through those days of homesickness for the US, roasted red peppers to put on my famous zucchini pizza assuming I can ever find gouda in Pakistan, and Celtic Sea Salt because my naturopath told me iodized salt is from the devil. Most people send their couches, bookcases, and beds to their country of posting, I send food. […] Read More

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Surprises

I was just alerted to a devastating piece of news. From hulu.com: For now, Hulu is a U.S. service only. That said, our intention is to make Hulu’s growing content lineup available worldwide. This requires clearing the rights for each show or film in each specific geography and will take time. We’re encouraged by how many content providers have already been working along these lines so that their programs can be available over the Internet to a much larger, global audience. The Hulu team is committed to making great programming available across the globe. That’s right, no Hulu in Pakistan. Everyone knows what Hulu is, right? Maybe you saw that commercial for it where Alec Baldwin is an alien? Man, that Alec Baldwin is funny. Anyway, for those of you still watching shows on your tv, hulu.com is a website that lets you watch all sorts of shows and movies right away, on your own schedule, with limited commercials. I love it. On my original list of “reasons why not to move to Pakistan,” I didn’t add “missing a year’s worth of Lost, 30 Rock, and The Office” because I thought I had Hulu in my corner. I naively assumed that what’s available on the internet here would be available there. There’s a rumor that you can still watch shows on nbc.com overseas, but no such luck with any of the other channels. Seriously: what am I going to do about Lost? This is just the first of many surprises I imagine I will be encountering in the next few weeks as I move to another country. Speaking of surprises, I was surprised when I caused a security alert […] Read More

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It’s On

The contract was signed last Thursday. There was a 48-hour waiting period in which Congress could have rejected it; they didn’t. I still don’t know my departure date. I have a hangover. That about sums it up right now. I’ll celebrate later! […] Read More